RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Saudi state media outlets have been found to repeatedly report information, lacking sources or supporting evidence, in order to attack their political opposition in the Middle East. This can range from stories about deserters from Hamas to the utterly absurd fictions regarding alleged assassinations of high-ranking Iranian officials, which, taken together, constitute a pro-Israel, pro-Washington psyop.
This Wednesday, Saudi state broadcaster Al-Hadath claimed that an Iranian ‘Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Commander named Seyyed Mustafa Javad Ghaffari had been kicked out of Syria by the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, sparking speculation over a possible breakdown in relations between Tehran and Damascus. For Israeli and U.S. media, which have now taken the report at face value, it is an intriguing story. And it would be an interesting development, except for one small detail: there is not a shred of evidence to support the claims.
According to the original report on Al-Hadath, Commander Ghaffari had set up a “black market” by bypassing customs and smuggling goods into Syria; additionally, Ghaffari had allegedly admitted to storing weapons in prohibited areas inside of Syria. Later reports in Israeli media, quoted Saudi media as claiming that Assad had accused Ghaffari of violating Syrian sovereignty and hence had expelled him. In addition to this, the unnamed Saudi media source seemed to work off of the assumption that the Iranian commander was behind an attack on U.S. forces and their allies on October 20 at their al-Tanf base in Syria. According to Al-Hadath, Syria was unhappy specifically with the IRGC commander’s conspiring against the Israelis and U.S. forces that occupy their territory, owing to fears of being dragged into a regional war.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s broadcaster used biased language, in what should have been a professional report, demonstrating instantly that the outlet, Al-Hadath, was coming at the report from the state’s propagandistic perspective. On its website, its report concludes:
The source viewed the exclusion of Mustafa Ghaffari, who is following in the footsteps of Qassem Soleimani by establishing the Syrian Hezbollah militia, as a blow to Soleimani’s vision and dream of establishing a land bridge between Iran and Lebanon.
So who is this source? We don’t have a name or even a title. All we know is that Al-Hadath calls them someone that is familiar with the Syrian senior leadership. Lacking any further information, it is reasonable to ask the following questions: How does an enemy state to both Syria and Iran manage to acquire such information first? If this source exists, they clearly chose an enemy state to leak this information to, so why not an American or Israeli media outlet with more credibility? And finally, is there really any such source?
I spoke to Seyyed Mohammed Marandi, Professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran, who says that the claims are “utter nonsense.” “All Iranian commanders are rotated, Hajj Javad isn’t the first,” Marandi explained. He also went on to say that “actually, the Iranian change in command happened weeks ago; if they [Saudi media] know so much why didn’t they say anything when it happened?”
A history of similar claims
Interestingly, this is far from the first time that such reports have emerged — reports that carry the potential to sow confusion and distrust amongst supporters of parties and nations that are enemies of Saudi Arabia.
On July 19, 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya published claims that high-ranking Hamas officials had been caught spying on the Gaza-based movement, including a Commander of the al-Qassam Brigade’s elite naval wing, said to be named Mohammed Abu Ajwa, who they claimed fled to Israel via boat after spying for Israel since 2009. The source for these claims was again unnamed and the allegations were denied strongly by Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem, who said that “the Al-Arabiya channel is promoting rumors that serve the aims of the occupation in destabilizing the home front in Gaza.” It is now 2021 and Israel has yet to even comment on these claims officially, which is strange considering that such a propaganda win for Israel would normally be weaponized by their political establishment. In addition to this, no one in Gaza has ever heard of this alleged commander.
As with the claims made about Syria expelling an IRGC Commander, there was a minuscule grain of truth to what was claimed. In the case of Syria’s “expulsion” of Iran’s commander, Javad Ghaffari did leave Syria weeks ago; and in the case of Hamas collaborators, the movement did arrest 16 individuals on the basis of spying for Israel. In fact, the report for Al-Arabiya quoted the Ministry of Information for Hamas, to substantiate its claims of Hamas members being arrested.
The Times of Israel even claimed that it was a big deal that “Hamas admits” one of its own fled to the Israeli side, after Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk had stated as much, a fact already acknowledged to be true. This demonstrates the sensationalism of Israeli media at the time. During the interview quoted, conducted with Marzouk for Al-Mayadeen TV, the Hamas leader said:
They are isolated members. There is no connection between them. They are not commanders in the [Hamas military wing] Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, nor are they commanders in Hamas… What the occupation claims, that they are commando officers or senior naval officers, is absolutely false.”
The Times of Israel, along with other Israeli media, was quick to parrot unsubstantiated Saudi claims
It is important to know that Hamas regularly arrests collaborators and sentences many of them to death. This is not uncommon, nor is it out of the ordinary for members of the group to be blackmailed by Israel to work for them. To become a member of Hamas is not a difficult task and its membership is wide-ranging inside Gaza.
An Iranian commander assassinated, or not really
Another example of bogus claims made by Saudi State TV is that of an Iranian commander being assassinated in Syria’s Eastern Deir Ezzor province in November of 2020. In this case, Al-Arabiya added sketchy details to a story built on weak foundations. The alleged assassination of an Iranian Quds force commander would have had serious implications, especially as some sources claimed that it came as a result of a U.S. coalition force bombing campaign.
At the time I tracked the report to its origin, discovering that the allegations had emerged from a Syrian-opposition media group, called “Step News Agency,” which published a report on the alleged incident on November 29, 2020. The article claimed that the agency’s reporter, Abdul Rahman al-Ahmad, who was said to have been based in the Eastern Deir Ezzor province of Syria “obtained information” that indicated a vehicle belonging to Iran’s elite Quds forces was targeted and destroyed. The car was, according to this report, targeted near the Salbi area, in the Suwaiya Desert, after having crossed into Syria from a designated area for militias, near the Al-Qaim crossing. The initial report noted only that two were said to have died in the attack, also claiming that the week prior to this, unidentified aircraft – suspected to have belonged to the U.S. coalition – had launched 10 raids on pro-Iranian militia sites.
Israeli media outlets then ran with the claims despite having nothing but the word of a single Syrian opposition journalist to go on. Israel Hayom News, for instance, cited developed claims from Syrian-opposition media that instead of two Iranians having been killed, it was “a logistics officer in the IRGC’s elite Quds Force,” as well as two other Iranians, who had been assassinated.
Al-Arabiya Newsthen claimed to have obtained the identity of the commander, naming him as “Muslim Shahdan.” This was then published by the likes of the Daily Mail, which also repeated the claim made by the Turkish-based Anadolu Agency that there were now three IRGC members killed inside the car allegedly targeted in Deir Ezzor, Syria.
There was never any photographic evidence, witness testimony, approximate timing, video evidence, or any official confirmation of exactly where in Deir Ezzor this attack took place. There was no continuity through the various contradictory claims made by all the different media outlets and no one could even determine how many people actually died in the reported attack.
The story originated with Syrian opposition media groups, who have a clear anti-Iran agenda and have continued to peddle false claims of Iranian forces being killed in virtually every single Israeli attack on Syria, figures that Israel never clarifies and for which we never see proof. These groups claim to have sources in Syrian government-controlled areas, even naming those individuals occasionally. The question also must be posed in this case that if the Syrian government knows these journalists, how is it that they are still able to obtain sensitive information on military operations and casualties of individuals known only to a few to be in the country, in top-secret locations? Are we to believe that these unnamed sources are never identified and that in Syria anyone can know sensitive information about the government at any time without any questions asked? Also, how is it that these opposition journalists are the first people to report casualties, often before there is time for local medical staff to declare deaths?
There was then the story that was looped in with the alleged assassination attack, claiming that U.S. coalition forces attacked 10 Iranian sites in Abu Kamal, but according to the initial reports from Syrian opposition media, that had happened a week prior to the assassination. Israel Hayom and the Daily Mail failed to specify when the two separate attacks took place, making it seem as if it all had occurred on the same night. Again there are no specifics given here, just the repeated claims from Syrian opposition media.
The allegations that were made about weapons having been transported, in the car of the commander that was allegedly attacked, also seemed very unlikely. Why would an Iranian Quds Force commander be traveling in a car packed full of weapons and why do a weapons transfer in a regular car carrying a high-ranking commander in it? Why not just transport the weapons in trucks? These small details made the story seem less believable, especially when no one had been able to officially identify the two, three, or four Iranians said to have been killed.
As spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, later told Iran’s Mehr News that these allegations were false, yet many Western media outlets failed to publish this information. Talking to a Syrian Arab Army military source at the time, I was also informed that they were “not aware of any such attack happening”.
Saudi media playing a pro-Israel, pro-Western agenda
The examples above demonstrate a clear pattern with the media of Saudi Arabia and the way in which their “unnamed sources” are taken at face value and repeated verbatim throughout Western and Israeli media. The claims clearly serve a political agenda, but not just any agenda.
Such claims are very specifically designed to inflame tensions and to make the supporters of Hamas, Iran and Syria doubt their leaders and what may be going on behind the scenes. They play on issues that are normally dealt with behind closed doors and it is well understood that the average consumer of news will not have the time or resources to dig into such stories with the intent of uncovering the truth.
Israeli officials have now twice traveled to Saudi Arabia in the past year, that we know of, not only raising suspicions of unofficial cooperation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but confirming that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is warming up to the idea of openly normalizing ties with Israel, while the closeness of the United States government to the Saudis has long been apparent. Hence for Saudi state media to run media operations, as a form of psychological warfare, against their political foe, is not much of a surprise. Yet, for outlets across the world to choose to regurgitate the claims made by Saudi media, verbatim and without any critical take, is a real indictment of them and demonstrates a lack of journalistic credibility on their part.
Feature photo | A man reads Saudi news on Twitter at a coffee shop, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 29, 2019. Amr Nabil | AP